Scottish Peasantry’s Perception of the Witch Trials

Catarina Elvira
Catarina Elvira

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII released the papal bull Summis Desiderantes in response to the German inquisitor, Heinrick Kramer’s request to prosecute witchcraft in Germany.

Summis Desiderantes granted authority to Inquisitor Kramer for “correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising” such persons “according to their deserts.” While this did not cause the witch trials to begin in Scotland one hundred years later, it is still important to discuss this papal bull.

The Catholic Church had certainly acknowledged the existence of witchcraft and witches before. It was, however, one of the first times that the church encouraged the persecution of witches. History speaks loudly to the fact that when Rome spoke, Europe listened.

There are a few things to consider when analyzing the Scottish witch trials and their relations to the Scottish peasantry. First, the split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1560 caused extreme social disorder in peasant society in Scotland.

This article pays close attention to the newly formed Protestant Church of Scotland’s perception of witchcraft. The evolving view of the “good individual” and the idea of personal responsibility with regard to an individual’s faith that arose from Scottish Protestantism in Scotland is crucial to understanding the Scottish peasantry’s, as well as the church’s, awareness of witches and witchcraft.

Second, the social structure of Scotland was unique. The living situation in Edinburgh was dissimilar from other major European cities. It is important to understand that in Scotland, the trials did not start abruptly after the passage of laws against it. In fact, the first actual trial against witchcraft did not take place until 1590, twenty-seven years after the passage of the first Witchcraft Act.

Third, death on a massive scale was not a new experience for the Scots. Famine and disease effected the peasantry’s view of witchcraft, especially as the bubonic plague swept across Europe during this time decimating Scotland’s population.

After an exhausting stint of religious turmoil and the death of Mary of Guise in 1560, Scotland officially split away from the Roman Catholic Church and converted to Protestantism. While this conversion occurred with some opposition, largely from Catholic leaders, the importance of the church to almost all of society in Scotland cannot be stressed enough.

The shift caused the endangerment of their eternal salvation, and it was not taken lightly. While Scotland had split from Rome, the Protestant church remained an unconstructed organization without the authority to impose the newly desired Godly society. Leaders of the new Protestant Church of Scotland, determined to build a Godly society and stray away from the impersonal ways of the Catholic faith, had to decide the stances they would take on the government and social matters. The authoritative and organizational work was set to be done at the next parliament hearing, over which Mary, Queen of Scots, would preside.

The parliament hearing in 1563 was not as productive as the Protestant leaders would have liked, but the Witchcraft Act of 1563 still passed as a part of a larger set of laws.

Sufficient evidence exists to suggest that the Witchcraft Act was not intended to have such an enormous effect in Scotland. As Dr. Julian Goodare’s research confirms, “Witchcraft, after all, had been absent from the ‘horibill vices’ listed in July 1562… The Witchcraft Act was not the act the Protestant Church intended to use against idolatry in 1563; the church put forth separate acts against idolatry, which were rejected.”

While the act did not explicitly link Catholicism and witchcraft, presumably in an attempt to avoid offending Queen Mary, there seemed to be some anti-Catholic rhetoric referring to vane superstition in the document. This meant that reformation leaders, like John Knox, had to be particularly careful when drafting new laws.

The Protestant Church did not give a clear reason for adding witchcraft to their list of grievances. There are a few possible reasons for this change, one being that England passed a similar act earlier that year after an assassination attempt on Queen Elizabeth I of England from what was recognized to be witchcraft.

The Queen of England, along with the English courts, had no law to charge the perpetrators under. Regardless of why the Witchcraft Act existed, the church planned to enforce it. The church’s mission to transform Scotland’s society into a Godly one was important to how the Scottish peasantry viewed witchcraft.

“In pre-Reformation Europe, religious belief and practice were matters for the professionals; lay religion was optional. The idea that individuals were responsible for their own salvation transformed the belief structure.” The peasants would no longer go to church and have the word of God delivered and interpreted to them by a priest. They would live a Godly lifestyle and have a personal relationship with God without which they could face eternal damnation.

The church’s mission to transform Scotland’s society into a Godly one was important to how the Scottish peasantry viewed witchcraft. The idea of the “good individual” and the increasing importance of possessing personal responsibility for one’s own faith, both of which were pushed by the Protestant Church, created, for lack of a better word, nosiness among the Scottish peasants.

The new list created by the Protestant Church condemning the “horrible vices” such as adultery, blasphemy, contempt of God (which witchcraft would fall under), and whoring give insight into the Protestant Church’s perception of personal responsibility. “The point is that the church regarded legislation on moral discipline as essential to the full establishment of Protestantism.”

It also must be mentioned that belief in the devil was a central part of the Christian faith. Therefore, since “witches were believed to hold meetings called ‘sabbaths,’ which were attended by the devil in the form of a man and other witches,” witchcraft became the inverse of Christianity. This connection between God, the devil, and witches provides some insight into how the Protestant Church could have formed their perceptions and planned their actions towards witchcraft.

While “it might be implausible to say that witchcraft was deliberately fostered because of its imagined social effects: nevertheless, the point remains that beneficial social effects might plausibly have been attributed to belief in witchcraft.” The belief in witchcraft and the existence of witches was, by default, a belief in God.

The new concept that each believer should maintain a personal relationship with God gave the peasantry a new outlook on sin. They were not only responsible for their own sin, but they were also responsible for making sure their neighbors kept from sinning.

To invite the devil into one’s heart was to invite the devil into the whole town’s heart. E. Lynn Tinton described the trials well when she stated, “we find the witch trials of Scotland conducted with more severity than elsewhere, with a more gloomy and savage fanaticism of faith. Those who dared question the truth of even the most unreliable of sources and the most monstrous of statements were accused of atheism or infidelity to Christ.” The vigor in which the hunts and trials were pursued can be directly tied to the new religious challenges the peasantry experienced.

As always in history, many individuals used the current social situation of the time for their personal benefit. There are countless cases concerning people accused of witchcraft in order to alter inheritance and settle property disputes.

Issobel Griersoune, accused in 1607 of having an “evil will” and sending the devil to do her bidding in the form of black cats, according to the “The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft” she was most likely accused over old debts and neighborhood disputes.

The case against Annas Erskine in 1614, was believed to be the result of a dynastic struggle. In 1629, Katharine Oswald’s neighbors accused her of witchcraft over a bad business deal. These are only a few examples of a very long list of wrongly accused persons for witchcraft. A person could be accused and likely convicted of witchcraft simply because their neighbor did not like them. That was truly a terrifying thought for the Scottish peasantry, considering the witch trials in Scotland lasted almost two hundred years.

Scottish peasants lived in overcrowded, deplorable conditions, and often did not know where their next meal would come from. Once the church authority changed, they had to begin worrying about the welfare of their souls.

In the Catholic faith, after you were saved, there was no fear, and death would mean ascendance into heaven and relief from the pains of life. In the Protestant faith, one must have a personal relationship with the Holy Trinity, and even then, it was up to God to decide who continued into heaven.

People who lived miserable lives, surviving on the belief that there would peace in the end, had that promise of serenity ripped from them.

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